“In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.” —Plato’s Republic
Convalescing from recent illness, comfortably ensconced in a black leather easy chair at home, I sit perfectly still, the paper spread open on my lap, careful not to spill the steaming contents of the tea cup resting on the crook of my knee or stain my fingers on the ink of distant unrest. Sickness seals you in that way with a callous disregard for the world beyond your four walls. Unmoved by the big news of the day: the usual potpourri of war, famine and scandal, I am about to nod off with a long drawn-out yawn when a minor news item catches my eye, an article concerning the whereabouts of a missing painting by the 17th-century Italian master of dramatic effect, Caravaggio, an artist I once admired. And suddenly, altogether unexpectedly, a caption identifying a black-and-white photograph of the painting in question as a Nativity stolen from a church in Sicily in 1969 strikes like a bolt of chiaroscuro lightning, disturbing my tender balance, splattering me with tea and memory.
At middle age, revelation is a messy business.
According to the report, Marino Mannoia, a Mafia snitch and self-styled authority on stolen art, the State’s key witness at the corruption trial of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, now in its second year, broke the monotony of the interminable legal proceedings with the revelation that it was he who, 27 years ago, snatched the “Nativity with Saints Francesco and Lorenzo” from the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo—snatched it right out from under my eyes, altering, if ever so obliquely, the course of my life!
Cut to Italy, Summer of ‘69. A 17-year-old aesthete, I am on a quest to track down every Caravaggio canvas in Italy from Florence to Palermo. Having interned in my senior year of high school at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an art historian, my compulsion looks strictly legit to my parents, who are relieved that my raging hormones should find such a salutary “cultural” outlet.
The truth, of course, has little to do with culture as such. I am stirred by the filthy feet of Caravaggio’s virgins and the jarring blend of tenderness and violence in every brush stroke. Other artists make you stand in awe before their handiwork, Caravaggio sucks you in. At the Uffizi in Florence, Isaac squirming under Abraham’s knife mirrors my own malaise (“So when are you gonna get a haircut already!”) and Medusa reminds me of my mother. At the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I try David’s destiny on for size, clutching Goliath’s head in his hand, trembling with the knowledge that but for a well-aimed pebble, Goliath would have been clutching his.
The New Testament tableaux move me too. Six years of Hebrew School training notwithstanding, I am morbidly fixated on martyrdoms. And in the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples, amidst the angel flutter of “Le Sette Opere di Misericordia,” I leer at a young woman brazenly baring her breast for an old man to suck while a nobleman’s lackey strips the clothes off a corpse.
Which brings me to Palermo in search of a tame Nativity, having run out of crucifixions and beheadings.
It is 4 pm or thereabouts and this sprawling ancient slum is devoid of its hibernating hordes. The only soul in sight, a balding apostle with leathery skin and a loose-lipped smile assures me he can show me the way for a few hundred lire. Having shaken me down for the price of a drink, he leads me to the wrong church and leaves me with a shrug: “Mi dispiace, signore! They must have changed the street signs.” By this time Palermo is squirming with life. And though every man could have modeled for Matthew, Peter or Paul, every woman for the Madonna, every child for an angel or Christ, nobody seems to know where the church is. These are the same streets Caravaggio traipsed between commissions, duels and vendettas, I tell myself to assuage my mounting frustration. When finally I do stumble on the battered facade of San Lorenzo, its heavy metal portal is locked and I collapse like a beggar on the steps, cursing Caravaggio for ever having ventured south of Rome before I notice a cat slipping in through a side door.
“Where is the ‘Nativity’ please?” I ask an old man slumped over on a bench inside, who may or may not be the sacristan.
“Nella capella! In the chapel!” he points to a parcel of darkness to my left.
Twice I circle the church, peaking into every sacrosanct alcove, nook and cranny, but there is no sign of it.
“The Nativity!” I insist, gently shaking the old man, who has since drifted off to sleep.
He looks up with a scowl and limply points in the same direction.
“Show me, please! Per piacere!” I gesture, holding out a 1,000 lire note, which magically awakens his interest.
The sacristan perks up. We take the same direction he previously indicated, stopping before a chapel recessed in a curl in the wall. “_Ecco li, signore! _Here it is!” he points, crossing himself.
“Dove? Where?” I scour the vacant wall.
The old man strikes a match. Grumbling unintelligibly, he shoves me to the altar, atop which a small black-and-white photograph hangs askew crudely affixed with strips of yellowing tape to the bare wall. It is, I realize on closer inspection, a snapshot of the painting. “Ma questo e una fotografia!” I protest.
“‘La Nativita con i Santi Francesco e Lorenzo,’ si!” the old man insists, reading the caption, firmly clasping the 1,000 Lire note lest I try and retrieve it.
Perhaps it’s my faulty Italian. “Non capisco! I don’t get it! Dove é l–originale?”
“Ah si!” he nods, finally fathoming the source of my confusion. “E stato rubato! Stolen!” he shrugs matter-of-factly, as if relating an unfortunate fact of life.
It’s a bad joke. Unable to believe my eyes, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I’ve traveled the length of Italy’s boot to see a painting that isn’t there, a phantom masterpiece which this old man has watched over much of his adult life; yet to him, nothing’s missing. Three centuries ago a man of talent mixed his pigments on a palette and applied them to cloth capturing the image of a couple of local vagrants disguised as saints, an urchin masquerading as an angel and a cow looking on as a signorina makes ready to suckle a reclining infant. Seeing is believing. The image draped with the halo of sanctity engraved itself on the sacristan’s consciousness. The painting’s subsequent disappearance is beside the point, the canvas itself a disposable negative in the photo-optic chemistry of faith.
Not that I am quite capable of reasoning things out at the time, but I understand in some wordless way that I’ve been on the wrong track, hunting down illusions instead of going after the real thing. It would still be years before I find it, but that’s another story.
Cut to the present. More than a quarter century’s gone by, the snapshot having long since fallen off the wall of the church, possibly replaced by another, the old sacristan having carried his image of the Nativity to the grave, and yours truly, the disappointed pilgrim, sedentary now, having grown up and forgotten the fever of his teens—when suddenly, out of nowhere leaps an Italian Rumpelstiltskin, Marino Mannoia, a messenger from the past whose name evokes an unsavory onomatopoeiac mix of mania and ennui.
How often do we encounter one of the many invisible agents of that hodgepodge of chance and choice called destiny, an individual who, unbeknownst to him, and by an act of no immediate concern to us alters the ground rules of the game?
And now with a final brush stroke worthy of the master, this unlikely angel straight out of Caravaggio’s dubious circle of friends completes a tableau I’ve never seen but which has moved me profoundly, thus resolving the mystery of the missing canvas—a mystery obliquely linking the late sacristan of the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, a painter, a thief, a 17-year-old aesthete and a convalescent middle-aged pilgrim in tea-stained pajamas, rekindling the latter’s faith in miracles.
Peter Wortsman's recent works include a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin (Travelers' Tales, 2013)--for which he won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY); a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (Pelekinesis, 2014--a finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews' Best Science Fiction Book of the Year--and an anthology which he selected, translated and edited, Tales of the German Imagination (Penguin Classics, UK, 2013). Forthcoming are a book of short fiction, Footprints in Wet Cement (Pelekinesis, 2017) and a translation, Konundrum, Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (Archipelago Books, 2016). He was a Holtzbrinck Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin.